As the Jewish calendar tilts toward Rosh Hashanah, congregational rabbis hunker down with copious amounts of caffeine for sermon-writing cram sessions. In my work as a long-time editor for rabbis, writing teacher for clergy of many faiths, and former spirituality ghostwriter (yes, there is such a thing), I’ve edited countless sermons, and I have a soft spot for this misunderstood pietistic genre.
From the fire-and-brimstone oration of Jonathan Edwards to the soulful Hasidic tisch of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a sermon can be a brew of biblical interpretation, creative midrash, theological musing, rallying cry for social justice — take your pick. No matter the subject and focus, the best sermons are insightful, provocative and moving.
Sol Kerem, the rabbi in my novel, “The Beautiful Possible,” can’t summon sufficient faith or ingenuity to get those sermons down. He asks his wife Rosalie and former study partner Walter to ghostwrite for him, and their syncretic approach to the task energizes his work. In the context of the story, the sermons are not simply speeches; they reflect how my characters intersect and complete one another.
The process of writing a novel narrated by a rabbi — about a rabbi — taught me that the sermon and the novel have a lot in common. A contemporary novel doesn’t need to follow conventional parameters; neither does a sermon. When approached with a sense of play, the genre lends itself to improvisation, nuance and poetry. And one doesn’t have to be ordained to write a sermon — after all, why should clergy have all the fun?
Here are seven tips for writing one of your own:
1) Use everything: ancient and modern, homegrown and exotic. The world is filled with your best material. There is infinite wisdom in a single sheet of rice paper, in a baby’s fingernail, in the Rodin sculpture at the museum.
2) Learn how to work the lyric. Play with white space; respect silence; embrace the art of juxtaposition. Create a mosaic of meaning. Let the listener dance in the pause between words and tango with you, mind to mind.
3) Avoid the tendency to condescend, reduce or flatten. Your congregants are restless and hungry for authentic learning. Honor their attention; don’t careen into false sentimentality. Offer up the fruits of your wisdom. Emulate the sermons that inspire you, and dare to walk in the footsteps of masters.
4) Consider the words of Rabbi Nachman: “The essence of faith lies in the power of the imagination.” Faith and imagination are sister-arts that invite associative leaps, existential doubt and joyful inquiry. Explore the possibilities of language. All writing is creative writing; make world literature your rebbe.
5) You are a seeker, on equal par with all your congregants: those who sit attentively in the pews, those who skip out and hike in the woods, those who don’t realize the holiday began at sundown. Dance with uncertainty; shake up your stance; let yourself be surprised. Be open to where your empathy leads.
6) Pay attention. If there’s a trade secret that applies to anyone who strives to make meaning out of chaos, this is it. Observe the creases around the eyes of the person who rings up your groceries; dare to notice the beautiful and the broken.
7) You will fail, just like novelists do. This work requires humility, vulnerability and fortitude. But keep going. Writing is the tuning fork that will help you find the frequency of your heart, and perhaps touch someone else’s, too.
Amy Gottlieb is the author of the novel The Beautiful Possible. Formerly the director of publications for the Rabbinical Assembly, she currently teaches writing at NYC colleges, at Beyond Walls: Kenyon Institute for Spiritual Writing, and privately. Visit her website.